The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Heavy smog blankets Beijing ahead of Olympics as authorities pledge to clean up the air

A gray day in Beijing on Jan. 24. (Wu Hong/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

With less than two weeks to go until the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Chinese government said it is battling “extremely unfavorable” weather to clear the city’s skies of hazardous smog.

On Sunday, Beijing residents’ air pollution apps turned purple, the color indicating a “very unhealthy” level of tiny particulate matter. Forecasts for the next seven days suggest a midweek improvement, then another deterioration ahead of Jan. 31, Lunar New Year’s Eve, when authorities may have to contend with celebratory fireworks releasing plumes of smoke into the sky.

On Monday, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said the Olympics are arriving just as seasonal weather creates “extremely unfavorable conditions” across northern China. Ministry officials promised to fix the situation ahead of the Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 4 and authorized local governments to take “necessary action” to improve air quality.

Residents maintained their optimism despite a warning issued Jan. 24 that the weather ahead of the Beijing Olympics would be “ very unfavorable” to air quality. (Video: Reuters)

In parched Beijing, claims of a ‘green’ Olympics may not hold water

While less severe than Beijing’s infamous “airpocalypse” winters of a decade ago, the spiking pollution levels make outdoor exercise inadvisable just as athletes are arriving and add to fears that China will not fulfill promises of a “green” and carbon-neutral Olympics.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finland-based group, said the downturn in air quality, despite extensive government preparations, “shows how far Beijing has to go to systematically limit winter air pollution.”

“Even after all the progress in controlling emissions, the vast concentration of industry around Beijing means that when the weather is unfavorable, smog returns,” he said.

A relapse into Beijing’s hazier days during the Olympics would be especially embarrassing for a city that went to great lengths to deliver blue skies during the 2008 Summer Games. Then, the cleanup effort required hundreds of factories to be shuttered or relocated. Thousands of home coal-burning boilers were converted to natural gas.

Air quality in the city improved by 50 percent over that summer, according to official numbers. The drastic change meant more than just a welcome respite for Beijingers, underscoring the pressing health concerns of pollution. By comparing mortality rates in Beijing that summer to those in other cities in China, economists estimated that a 10 percent decrease in the particulate matter known as PM10 prevented about 196,000 premature deaths.

In the following years, awareness of the harmful effects of air pollution on the nation’s health mounted until a 2015 documentary from a state media journalist on the topic was an instant hit — before being quickly banned. In the face of mounting popular pressure, the government declared war on pollution.

Beijing’s air quality has improved dramatically since then. Last year, concentrations of the minuscule and more dangerous pollutant known as PM2.5 met national standards of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air for the first time. But that level is still about seven times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended amounts, and it often soars higher in the winter months.

Even as the start of the Olympics nears, the Chinese government has a range of options to rapidly improve air quality. Among those is an expansive weather modification program that uses cloud-seeding technology to increase rainfall in an attempt to flush out dirty skies.

Another method is to further reduce output from smoke-belching steel mills and coal-fired power plants. In Tangshan, the steelmaking capital of China about 100 miles east of Beijing, most factories were ordered to operate at well below full capacity from August until March.

But acting too harshly could risk a backlash from industry after authorities had promised to minimize the economic costs of the Games. In December, the Environment Ministry was forced to deny rumors it planned to order production cuts for coal-burning industries in multiple provinces.

Then there are the upcoming New Year celebrations. A ban on unauthorized fireworks in downtown Beijing is a long-standing feature of the anti-pollution campaign, but the prohibition had been only partially successful in reducing amateur pyrotechnics on the city’s streets. This winter, restrictions have been expanded to the suburbs and backed up by a crackdown on the underground firecracker trade.

In the last three months of 2021, Beijing police confiscated 8,604 boxes of firecrackers and slapped 103 offenders with punishments ranging from a warning to criminal detention. Cash rewards of up to 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) were offered for tips.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of the story erroneously referred to Tangshan as being west of Beijing when it is east of the capital. The story has been corrected.

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